My column is usually about interviews with other people. But every so often, through immense effort and struggle, I have a thought of my own. Lately, the majority of my thoughts revolve around Korea. We seem to be in that North Korea time of year again.
North Korea is one of the top trending items on Twitter after threats from Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader. The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “North Korea threatens to surround Guam with an ‘enveloping fire.'” Many other papers are running similar headlines, directly quoting Kim’s wild words.
Korea weighs heavily on my mind because I taught English in South Korea for a total of three and a half years across three different trips. I lived for a while in Busan, which is 320 miles from Pyongyang, North Korea; and I lived in Seoul, 121 miles from Pyongyang.
Now I live in Ridgecrest, along with most of you fine folks. Ridgecrest is 6,000 miles from Pyongyang. Washington, D.C., for those keeping tally, is 6,800 miles from Pyongyang.
I mention the distances because I hear significantly more panic about North Korea while living in the United States than I ever did while living in South Korea. There seems to be something about the nature of North Korea that the South Koreans understand and Americans do not.
The most confusing part is that people seem to forget that we go through this panic every single year. A 2016 article is titled, “North Korea threatens US and S Korea with nuclear strikes.” A 2015 article states, “North Korea issues military threat as tensions with South Korea rise.” In 2014, “North Korea threatens war on US over Kim Jong-un movie.”
And so on, as far back as I cared to search.
Every time it happens, I see Americans who worry that war is upon us. Or worse, some who think we should strike North Korea. Meanwhile, I heard no Koreans talk about panic while I was living in Seoul, unless I brought it up first.
With Kim in Pyongyang threatening doom and gloom, life 121 miles away in Seoul went on as usual. I once asked a South Korean friend what they thought of North Korea’s threats and why everyone seemed so calm.
She simply said, “He always does this.”
Here’s what I think most South Koreans understand that most Americans do not: North Korea most likely makes these threats not to flex their international muscle, but rather to keep control of their own people.
What would Kim gain from hitting us with a rocket? He isn’t part of some idealogical, borderless terrorist organization. He’s the leader of a nation with a fixed geographic location. We know where he is.
This isn’t guerrilla warfare where he can strike and hide, it’s old school musketmen lining up on the battlefield. Except he’s standing alone on a field against an army. North Korea may have some trading partners, but it doesn’t have significant allies. If North Korea followed through on the threats, a global coalition would instantly form and the Kim regime would fall within weeks.
The truth is that Kim needs the tension with South Korea and the United States because his regime needs an enemy. It’s a political trick as old as time; if your people are focused on a threat from the outside, they’re less likely to create trouble on the inside. And with a toppling North Korean economy, Kim is worried about trouble from the inside.
So this is why Korea weighs heavily on my mind these days. Not because I’m concerned about an attack, but because I’m embarrassed by how easily Kim can manipulate our media and our minds every year.
He makes these threats, then Western media outlets turn themselves into a loudspeaker for him, proclaiming his direct quotes in their headlines. This and our following hysteria play directly into his agenda, especially when our highest office begins responding with equally wild threats.
It all becomes ammunition Kim can use to keep his regime afloat that much longer.
The way to shut Kim up isn’t with an attack from the outside, but with a change from the inside. South Koreans have begun blasting their pop music across the border and using balloons to float South Korean movies to North Koreans. The hope is to help the North Koreans see through Kim’s mind-control-like regime. Information, not threats, puts pressure on the Kim regime.
That’s where we, as individuals, can do better. We have the freedom to search and to learn. I urge you to do so, because they cannot.
While living in Seoul, I volunteered to tutor North Korean refugees. One of my students had only left North Korea less than a year before. She didn’t know about Hollywood or international geography or much of anything about world history.
At first, I was apprehensive about meeting a North Korean. I wondered how we could communicate through such immense ideological differences. Yet, as we talked about our jobs and our families and our dreams, I found the ideology didn’t matter.
We were two people having a conversation, just like two people anywhere else. She didn’t care about the leader of North Korea or South Korea or America. The only thing she cared about was hoping her parents, still in North Korea, could someday join her in the South.
It’s that North Korean time of year ago, but you can treat it differently this time. Read beyond the hyperbolic headlines. In fact, read beyond the articles. Read a book about what life is like for the average North Korean.
Instead of getting sucked into the hysteria, do something that would really upset the Kim regime: learn something.
— Michael Smit is the education/water reporter for the Daily Independent. Contact him at email@example.com
The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the official stance of the Daily Independent.